Last week, Ishinomaki City in Miyagi Prefecture decided to preserve Okawa Elementary School, where 74 students, 10 staff, a school bus driver and an unconfirmed number of local residents were killed by the massive tsunami that struck on March 11, 2011, in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake. I believe the city made the right choice, for the school's remains can bear witness to the institutional and individual decisions that contributed to the tragedy. But in view of the controversy over what happened that day, this opinion needs explanation.

I first visited Okawa Elementary School in late 2014. I felt strangely detached, as if I was inspecting a site of some remote historical event rather than of the 3/11 disaster. Everything appeared so close as I stood in the schoolyard where everyone had assembled after the earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. that day. The wooded hillside where they could easily have reached safety stood before me, and 200 meters away was the Kitakami River bridge, which they had begun evacuating to at around 3:36 p.m. — just as the tsunami swelled over the river embankment toward them.

I visited again in January with Toshiro Sato, whose daughter Mizuho died there on 3/11, and this time it was different. Staring at the caved-in reinforced concrete walls, the buckled second story floors and a toppled concrete walkway, I listened as he spoke of the heavy debris which the tsunami dammed up against the buildings, and crashed through them. I couldn't bear to think what that mass of water, mud and debris had done to its human victims.